Edward Robert Hughes
British, 1851 - 1914
Dream Idyll (A Valkyrie)
From the auction catalogue:
J. H. Hedderwick, Esq., London
Sale: Christie's, London, January 6, 1971, lot 204
Private Collection (acquired in 1972)
Thence by descent
London, Royal Watercolour Society, 1902, no. 22 (as .Dream Idyll)
St. Louis, Universal Exposition (Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis World's Fair), 1904, no. 372 (lent by J.H. Hedderwick, Esq. as .A Valkyrie)
London, Franco-British Exhibition, 1908, no. 681 (lent by J.H. Hedderwick, Esq. as .A Valkyrie)
Rome, Royal Commission Fine Arts Exhibition, 1914
"Modern Watercolour Art," .The Builder, December 13, 1902, p. 544
Marcus Bourne Huish, .British Water-Colour Art, London, 1903, p. 140, illustrated (as .A Witch)
Isidore Spielmann, "The British Art Section of the St. Louis Exhibition," .Journal of the Society of the Arts, vol. 53, March 3, 1905, pp. 400-1
F.G. Dumas, .The Franco-British Exhibition, Illustrated Review, London, 1908, p. 84, illustrated
.Franco British Exhibition, Official Guide, London, 1908, p. 30
Against an indigo sky, a nubile rider grasps the black wings of a flying steed, her body gleaming in the moonlight, her golden tresses let loose in the wind as she peers down at the stony structures of a city built along a river many miles below. Is this a goddess of antiquity, a fairy, a captured princess? This allusive, seductive, strange, Symbolist scene by Edward Robert Hughes immediately captivated audiences upon its 1902 exhibition at the London's Royal Watercolor Society. As .The Builder's exhibition review exclaimed, "among the larger works of the year is one of importance, both in style and execution. It represents a kind of work seldom undertaken in water-colour and seldom seen at... the Society. This is Mr. E. R. Hughes' large and striking picture entitled 'A Dream Idyll'" (.The Builder, p. 544).
Though dating in the decade following Symbolism's sweep through British galleries and exhibition halls, .A Dream Idyll is a relatively early experiment in the style for Hughes, and one he would return to in works like .The Valkyrie's Vigil (1909) and. Night with Her Train of Stars (Fig. 1, 1912, Birmingham City Art Gallery). A nephew of the artist Arthur Hughes, under whom he first studied, and assistant to William Holman Hunt, Hughes began his career among the Pre-Raphaelites, and his earlier subjects were often based in Shakespearian (.The Shrew Katharina, 1898) or other literary themes (.Bertuccio's Bride, 1895, an illustration to Gian Francesco Straparola's .Le piacevole notte). Hughes' turn to Symbolism was likely prompted by his relationship with Edward Burne-Jones who, by his death in 1898, had an exceedingly powerful influence over the successful Academicians of the late Victorian era. Burne-Jones' aesthetics are particularly present in .A Dream Idyll with the delicate and otherworldly detachment of its mysterious female, its play with contrasting shapes and volumes, compositional space, and shifts in perspective. A brilliant watercolorist, Hughes uses the medium to fill the picture surface with hazy, dreamlike swabs of saturated color, and employs more heavily bodied gouache to create shape and form, mixing the earth-bound with the air-borne. The pegasus' great black, feathered wing shimmers with moonlight, extending out to the viewer at top-beat propelling the beast forward, soon revealing its rear legs and tail now cropped from view. The creature's physical effort is revealed in the wispy vapor streaming from his nose and mouth. The rider's ethereal skin stretches over a lithe body, its glowing, reflective tone a contrast to the supple, dark coat of her mount. The great blue-black, massive void of the atmosphere laced with a multitude of gauzy clouds and sparkling stars surround the flying pair, appearing to recede infinitely into the background while the landscape seen in miniature appears many miles below. The effect is breathtakingly vertiginous: save for the barely discernable bridges and buildings on the ground, there are few stable points of reference for the viewer.
Overall, with his .Dream Idyll, Hughes, like many master Symbolists, succeeds in creating an aesthetic mood rather than a particular story. Such an accomplishment was easily grasped by critics who understood that "no meaning or legend is assigned to the picture; it is simply a .tour de force of execution, and as such most remarkable" (.The Builder, p. 544). Indeed the appreciation of the form and feeling of Hughes' work and disinterest with narrative exactitude demonstrates the invigorating aesthetic possibilities Symbolism offered artists. Using folktales and mythologies of past ages as a point of reference, Hughes assimilated Symbolist ideals into these original sources in idiosyncratic ways, adding distinct elements of swarming, visual details in bold color, dramatic use of lightand shadow, and energized feeling. The suggestive power of decoration in tandem with dramatic compositions invited the viewer to create their own personal interpretation. When exhibited at St. Louis' Universal Exhibition in 1905, the writer Isidore Spielmann felt compelled to write a full history of the rider, who he describes as a valkyrie (one of the maiden warrior-deities who serve Odin, the chief god of the Norse pantheon) as she "leaves her Valhalla, and is soaring above a city formerly the scene of strife and heroism, but now at rest from warfare and asleep in the moonlight. The artist intends her to seem peering into the depths from the back of her winged war-horse, as though she has a great longing to live with the mortals in their beautiful city, through whose art flows an ever-giving river" (Spielmann, pp. 400-1). Spielmann's poetic description may have been informed by the exhibition of Hughes' work under the name .A Valkyrie (the reason for which is unknown); the work's other recognized name, .A Witch, suggests a knowledge of popular French and Belgian symbolists whose haunting compositions explored mythological or magical women that seemed to straddle the worlds of death, sleep, and night.
When concluding the review of the present work, .The Builder's critic. wondered "whether the result on the spectator's mind is commensurate with the ability displayed" and if "so much brilliant workmanship was worth bestowing on such a mere fantasy" (p. 544). Such a question reveals that, ultimately, .Idyll Dreams, as its title suggests, was intended to serve as a starting point for the imagination, a way to bring out what was hidden in the subconscious. Indeed, upon its third major showing at the Franco-Prussian exhibition of 1909, F.G. Dumas suggested watercolors like those by Hughes were "truly representative of the art, and reveals its many beauties to the visitor who will study it with care---beauties of which are withheld from him who vouchsafes it but a casual glace of semi-interest" (Dumas, p. 84)
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